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Alec Guinness had become an international star playing eight different characters in the Ealing Studios comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), so he decided on a change of pace for his next two films. Last Holiday (1950), although humorous at times, was predominantly a melancholy drama and, in The Mudlark (1950), his first American film, Guinness played Disraeli to Irene Dunne's Queen Victoria; it was not a success. Wisely, he decided to return to Ealing and comedy with The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).
Guinness described his timid character in The Lavender Hill Mob as a "fubsy" middle-aged bank clerk named Holland who masterminds a robbery of the gold bullion he's supposed to protect. "I see Holland as a man given to handwashing gestures," Guinness said (in Garry O'Connor's biography, Alec Guinness: Master of Disguise). "Anyone who usually does that is on the plump side so I think I ought to be slightly padded...we should somehow point the incongruity of a person like Holland seeing himself as the boss of a gang. It might be a good way to get the right effect if he were to have difficulties in pronouncing his R's."
Holland's "mob" includes an aspiring artist who creates souvenir paperweights, played by Stanley Holloway (Alfred Doolittle in the screen version of My Fair Lady, 1964), and a pair of bumbling robbers. Heist accomplished, they melt down the gold and Holloway fashions it into miniature Eiffel Tower souvenirs. The mob goes to Paris to collect their booty, only to find that several of the statuettes have been sold to some English schoolgirls on holiday. The film climaxes with a wild car chase, and an escape by the timid mastermind that's a brilliant sight gag. But it's not over quite yet....
The Lavender Hill Mob was the brainchild of one of Ealing's most original writers, T.E.B. (Thomas Ernest Bennett, known as "Tibby") Clarke. Clarke had written a newspaper humor column prior to World War II but he couldn't get in the army during the war...so he became a policeman, which gave him fresh fodder for his writing. After the war, on staff at Ealing, Clarke had been assigned by studio head Michael Balcon to create a script for a working-class crime drama set on the docks around the Pool of London, the area of the Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. The area includes "the City," London's financial district. While scouting the City for atmosphere, he noticed armored vans carrying bars of gold bullion, and a nondescript little man who was in charge of the transport. Clarke was intrigued with the possibilities for a comedy about that little man. Pool of London (1951) eventually became a well-regarded film, but without Clarke's involvement. He was taken off that film to develop his original idea into The Lavender Hill Mob.
The Eiffel Tower scheme was dreamed up by no less than a Bank of England official. While writing the script, Clarke had cheekily asked the official the best method of stealing a million pounds' worth of gold bullion. And the official suggested melting down the gold and fashioning it into souvenirs.
One of the pleasures of The Lavender Hill Mob is spotting the familiar faces of players who would become some of the most beloved character actors in British films. Sid James, who would become known for the Carry On films, plays one of the robbers (he's billed here as "Sidney James"). Peter Bull (Tom Jones, 1963), John Gregson (Genevieve, 1953), and James Fox (The Servant, 1963) are among those playing small roles. Pay close attention to the sequence at the beginning of the film set in South America; it features a girl selling cigarettes and she has one line. Yes, that's a very young Audrey Hepburn.
The Lavender Hill Mob was a worldwide hit, and became one of Ealing's most successful films. It earned Alec Guinness his first Academy Award nomination, and won Tibby Clarke an Oscar for his screenplay. Even today, when the drab postwar England portrayed in the film seems as quaint and far away as the Victorian era, the comedy of The Lavender Hill Mob still retains its charm.
Producer: Michael Balcon
Director: Charles Crichton
Screenplay: T.E.B. Clarke
Editor: Seth Holt
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Music: Georges Auric
Cast: Alec Guinness (Henry Holland), Stanley Holloway (Pendlebury), Sidney James (Lackery), Alfie Bass (Shorty), Marjorie Fielding (Mrs. Chalk), Edie Martin (Miss Evesham).
BW-82m. Closed Captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri